Saturday, August 29, 2020

Dantikā Sees an Elephant
(Meditation for Sunday August 30th)


 Dantikā Sees an Elephant

 Recently I was introduced to a beautiful book of poetry by Matty Weingast called The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns. It's a poetic retelling of the verses in the Therīgāthā or Poems of the Elder Nuns. This is a collection of short poems, dating from around 600 BCE to 300 BCE and first written down around 80 BCE. What is so fascinating is that we get a beautiful and intimate view onto the lives of the nuns at that time - and it won't surprise you to know that many of their joys, struggles and achievements feel fresh and relevant to us today.

One of the poems that struck me in the book was "Dantikā and the Elephant." Here is Ajahn Ṭhānissaro's translation of the same poem:

Coming out from my day’s abiding
on Vulture Peak Mountain,
I saw on the bank of the river
an elephant
emerged from its plunge.
A man holding a hook requested:
“Give me your foot.”
The elephant
extended its foot.
The man
got up on the elephant.
Seeing what was untrained now tamed
brought under human control,
with that I centered my mind—
why I’d gone to the woods
in the first place.
There is so much to learn from this small but deep poem, and I would encourage you to meditate on it for a while. What struck me first was that having spent much time meditating on the mountain it was a mundane observation that caused her insight. Now for you and I if we walked in the woods and saw an elephant that would be a huge deal! But I am assuming for Dantikā it wasn't so unusual. What struck her was the relationship between the man and the elephant. And having spent the day meditating the insight of the relationship she had with her mind was particularly enlightening. As she says, this is why she'd gone to the woods in the first place.

We often think of the meditation cushion as a special, separate place where we can work with our minds. And of course, in many ways it is - but just as important as the cushion is what happens when we get up off of it. In the woods Dantikā learned about her relationship with her mind from observing a man and an elephant. Our learning, our insight continues when we go to the woods, go to the store or walk down the street.

Wishing you all insight in the coming week,

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on working with our thoughts. You can of course listen at any time, but a few of us have committed to press play together at 7pm PT Sunday 30th August. You are welcome to join with us if you wish.



If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
 

Photo by Felix M. Dorn on Unsplash


Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Story of Ferdinand
Meditation for Sunday 23rd August

 

The Story of Ferdinand

 
Earlier this week I was reminded of 'The Story of Ferdinand' - a beautiful children's book first published in 1936, written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson.

As a child I loved this book, and read it over and over. There was something about the story that really spoke to me. I wanted to be Ferdinand.

If you aren't familiar with the book it tells the story of a young bull who loves sitting in the shade of his favorite tree, smelling the flowers. One day, due to an unfortunate circumstance, he is chosen to be the main bull in Madrid's bullfight. I'm not going to say more in case you want to read it for yourself (which I recommend). However there is something so pure and inspiring about a strong and healthy bull preferring to smell flowers and sit in the shade rather than fight. It truly is a deep and touching story.

And it turns out that I'm not the only one who thinks so. After being reminded of the book earlier this week I did a little bit of digging and found out that the book had been both influential and controversial since its publication 84 years ago, and continues to be today. The book has been repeatedly banned, was burned by the Nazis and reportedly was declared by Gandhi to be his favorite children's book.

All because a bull preferred to be calm and smell the flowers rather than fight.

I think for me it was the desire for calm that most spoke to me as a child. I am not a naturally calm person, and to see a character in a story that dwelt in such calm - even when being attacked - gave me something to aspire to. In many ways Ferdinand was my Gandhi.
 
Calmness is something we can all cultivate, and I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on practicing samatha (calmness). A group of us have committed to pressing 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday August 23rd. You are welcome to join us then, or listen at any time you wish.
 
Wishing you calm amid the craziness in the coming week,
Chris.

If you would like to follow me down this flower-lined rabbit hole, then there is an excellent New Yorker article that summarizes much of the controversy over the years. There was a Walt Disney short made in 1938 that follows the book fairly closely. Apparently an Oscar-nominated feature film was made a few years ago but I haven't seen it yet. And this Antiques Roadshow feature was the stimulus for me revisiting the book this week. Enjoy getting to know Ferdinand!
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Illustration by Robert Lawson.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Staying Cool
Meditation for Sunday 16th August

 Staying Cool


It's hot here right now in the Northwest. We are under a 'heat advisory' and it is forecast to get up to 103°F (39°C). It's really quiet outside, nobody really wants to be out in this.

Now if you are reading this in Phoenix you are probably laughing right now as you look at your forecast of 115°F (46°C), but trust me, this is hot for us.

The reality is that living where we live we experience a wide range of weather. That's what life in the Northwest is like. It gets hot in the summer (and is getting hotter overall) and cold in the winter. But the weather is what it is. If we complain or grouse about it we do nothing but make ourselves more miserable. The weather doesn't listen to us.

We all have preferences when it comes to weather. Personally I prefer cool sunny spring days (and this area is beautiful when it is like that). But expecting the weather to be like that all the time is not only foolish but short sighted. If we didn't have the extensive rain then this place wouldn't be as beautiful as it is.

Of course we all know this, but it is still an important lesson for us. In every aspect of our lives we need to move beyond preference, and accept that sometimes there are things that we can't change, that are just how the world is. As the Serenity Prayer says:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

As we move beyond preference we begin to cultivate equanimity. Andrew Olendzki says in his wonderful article "The Mindfulness Wedge":

The mind is habitually caught up in some very deep reflexes of craving and aversion. Wanting what pleases us and wanting to do away with what causes us distress is part of a primordial operating system that has served all creatures on this earth quite well for aeons. Buddhism is pointing to an evolutionary step requiring us to abandon this reflex and replace it with a more mature mental state: equanimity. Classical mindfulness, unlike popular mindfulness, is all about the cultivation of equanimity. One is able to experience both pleasure and pain without clinging to anything in the world. One can be aware of what is gratifying and distressing, and still abide independent, not needing things to be other than they are.
This is the secret to 'staying cool' - 'not needing things to be other than they are.' This is equanimity.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on equanimity and 'staying cool.' A few of us have committed to pressing 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday August 16th. You are welcome to join us if you wish, or of course you can listen on your own at any time.

May you all be well and 'cool' in these times,

Metta, Chris.

If the above link doesn't work for you please click here.
 

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash


Saturday, August 8, 2020

Ten Directions
Meditation for Sunday August 9th

Ten Directions

We all aspire to be more loving, to have more compassion and goodwill for all humanity. It is actually a really easy thing to declare that we have love for all people, that we wish everyone well.

Of course the difficulty comes when we move from the general to the specific. We can claim to love all the children of the world, yet harbor angry thoughts for the child kicking our airplane seat from behind us. We can declare our wish for the well-being of all people and yet wish ruin on that politician we cannot abide. Going from the generic to the specific is always the hard part. As Linus famously observes in Schulz's Peanuts, "I love mankind - it's people I can't stand."

This is the reason that in the practice of Metta Bhavana (cultivation of lovingkindness) we explicitly start with the specific. We start by practicing the generation of love and goodwill to four specific people. Our self, a (specific) friend, a (specific) neutral person and a (specific) enemy. It is only by working with the specific that we can understand the limits and edges of our ability to love. If you start with the general, with 'all people,' it is easy to convince yourself that you do truly love all beings. But 'all beings' includes all those specific people, the ones that give you trouble. That's why the traditional form of Metta Bhavana is the way it is, and why it is such a powerful practice. Making the statement that you love all beings can be a platitude - working with all of the specifics can be a lifelong practice.

At the end of the traditional form of Metta meditation we do move from the specific and out to all beings. This part is traditionally known as the 'sending to the ten directions.' The ten directions here are the classical eight compass points, plus upward and downward. The point is to take what we have practiced for the specific people and apply the same to all beings - while still acknowledging that 'all being' includes billions of specific people and many trillions of specific creatures. All of whom are individuals. All of whom we wish to be well, happy and free from suffering.

Having practiced in this way we then continue to live our lives. And guess what? The people you will meet this week are part of 'the ten directions.' The saint, the politician, the criminal, the victim - all those you see or read about are part of those you covered in the ten directions. And so the specific becomes general, which becomes specific again in our lives.

Recognizing this cycle of specific - general - specific in our lives is one of the most powerful points of awakening any of us can have, and it is core to the practice of Metta Bhavana. I have linked below a fully-guided Metta Bhavana meditation, with some emphasis on sending to the ten directions. You can of course listen to it at any time, but a few of us have committed to listen together starting at 7pm Sunday August 9th. You are welcome to join with us then if you wish.

Wishing each one of you to be well and happy,

Chris.


If the above player doesn't work for you please click here. 
Photo by Tim Graf on Unsplash

Saturday, August 1, 2020

That Moment
Meditation for Sunday August 2nd




That Moment


I love watching extraordinary humans. Whether they are athletes, artists, musicians, dancers... what fascinates me is how they manage to perform at their peak, consistently, on-demand.

When we think of these people we often focus on their amazing physical abilities - their strength, coordination, stamina or dexterity. And yet the more we watch them the more we see that it is not just about their bodies, but about their mental strength, focus and resilience.

Think for a moment of a gymnast, standing by the side of the mat, about to start a routine. They pause, close their eyes or maybe gaze gently forward, and prepare their mind for the actions that are to come. This is all clearly visible, and it is often in this very moment that the success or otherwise of the routine stems.

Of course it's not just gymnasts. The same can be seen with concert pianists before they start to play, basketball players before they take a free throw, soccer players before a penalty, singers before a solo... The key is that the action is preceded by the calming and the integration of the mind and the body.

In modern sports this phenomenon is called 'the quiet eye.' It has become so important that in 2017, the European Journal of Sport Science devoted a whole issue to it. For a less academic take you can read a great overview of 'the quiet eye' in the BBC article linked here.

This clarity - this connection between the mind, body and action - is clearest in our elite athletes and artists but is something we can all practice. More than that, one of the ways I have found to help cultivate the connection between mind and body in meditation is to start by visualizing an athlete or artist, and to meditate on what they are doing. I can then, in my own imperfect way, transfer that to a feeling and awareness of integration between my own mind and body.

In the Satipatthana Sutta The Buddha says this of a meditator:
'Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in,' thinking thus, he trains himself.
'Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out,' thinking thus, he trains himself.
'Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe in,' thinking thus, he trains himself.
'Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe out,' thinking thus, he trains himself.
While you and I are probably not elite athletes, we can gain inspiration from them and learn from them. Great sporting or artistic feats are not done purely by the body, but by the integration of the mind and the body. This is also what we do in meditation.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on 'That Moment.' You are of course encouraged to listen along with it whenever you can, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm on Sunday 2nd August. You are welcome to join us if you wish.

 Metta, Chris.
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.

Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash.
"Satipatthana Sutta: The Discourse on the Arousing of Mindfulness" (MN 10), translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 13 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.soma.html